The Barbary Dogs: New Excerpt

Cynthia Robinson, The Barbary DogsOpera singer extraordinaire Max Bravo is ready for some rest and relaxation. But when an old friend takes a leap off the Golden Gate Bridge, Max realizes that rest and relaxation simply aren’t in the cards. The jumper, Frank Kelly, was a failed writer and an accomplished hothead. Max acquires Frank’s journal, and is soon following the dead man through a foggy landscape of artistic manias and romantic intrigues. Along the way, he encounters a motley crew of crackpots, bohemians, and wily ghosts that refuse to be buried in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast past.

 

Chapter 1

Frank Kelly dove off the middle span of the Golden Gate Bridge. Like almost all the jumpers who went before him, he leapt facing east—looking toward the city that had tormented him. San Francisco, the city he liked to refer to as the painted whore of the Barbary Coast.

Frank left a suicide note wired to the bridge railing. It said: Ocean, ocean, I’ll beat you in the end. And in the postscript he wrote, I’d like Max Bravo to disperse my material possessions.

Well, I—being the Max Bravo in question—shouldn’t like it very much. In fact, when the police showed me the note, my pity for Frank was soon dislodged by outrage, followed by simmering resentment.

I don’t care for domestic drudgery. And I believe that recruiting one’s friends to help one move is a hallmark of the modern Lumpenproletariat. To hire a truck—or, worse yet, to conscript a friend who owns a truck—and to load it up with one’s stained mattresses and oak veneer particleboard dressers, and to ferry down the interstate with your belongings flapping in the wind, is a sad and déclassé spectacle.

So, yes, I was vexed that Frank Kelly asked me to clear the crap out of his apartment.

And, it was awkward. Frank and I had become estranged. There was a time when we were very thick. But, over the years, we’d drifted. I saw him very seldom, and then only by random chance. At those sporadic intersections where we had met, it was inevitably a disaster.

We’d run into each other in some bar or other—as two errantly piloted oil tankers, colliding, sinking. The aftermath was always a twisted carnage of steaming wreckage. My head would burn for days like oil slicks flaming on salt water.

But outside of those occasional bacchanals, Frank lay buried in my past. During the two years of our active friendship, we saw each other nearly every day. Our converging interests—crapulence and irony—clamped us together. That had been long ago. Wasn’t there a statute of limitations on ill-advised friendships, just as there are on other crimes?

The problem was that the local gendarmes had meddled all around San Francisco, showing Frank’s suicide note to our mutual friends and acquaintances, and a host of barflies and hangers-on. And because those busybodies at the SFPD involved so many people, I was now bound by public scrutiny to go over to Frank’s apartment and do as he’d asked. He probably knew that when he wrote the note.

Three days after Frank jumped, I drove to his place in the outer Richmond. It was a drab Sunday afternoon in June, and the diffuse light made objects look far away. The air smelled dank with frustrated rain.

Frank lived in an Art Deco building near the beach where San Francisco abutted into the Pacific Ocean. His building was a white, towering, Jazz Age monolith that dwarfed the surrounding homes—modest two-bedroom bungalows that sprang up like mushrooms all around it after World War II. The older building stood apart, on a grassy knoll like a lonely oaf. The Pacific roared in the background. The tower was shrouded in salty mists. Foghorns lowed like cattle.

This was the borscht belt. Little Russia. Frank was probably one of the only guys in his building that couldn’t read Cyrillic. The Slavs don’t seem to mind the moody microclimate—the cold wind lashing off the ocean, the fog curling around your ankles, the sky muffled with leaded clouds. Maybe it appeals to their sense of fatalism. Apparently, the Celts can be pretty fatalistic too.

I moved inefficiently around Frank’s hollow apartment, boxing his books, sorting out his clothes, piling up items for donation. I searched for one or two personal effects that I could send to his mother in Canada—some keepsake that carried a whiff of her son, without freighting the stench of his tragedy. But everything Frank had was flotsam: chipped plates and busted radios and ghastly acrylic sweaters in every shade of gray.

In one of his books, something by Tom Wolfe, I found a photo of him on the beach. It was taken on a sunny day and his uncombed black hair lifted in the breeze. He was smiling, showing off his false teeth. He looked happy. I put the photo in my jacket pocket. I’d send that to her.

The donation people arrived, a charity organization that provided work for mentally disabled adults. The crew was comprised of two stout Down’s Syndrome men and their attendant, who drove the truck.

I, rather grandly, told them they could take everything, the whole lot of it. The mongoloid fellows tactfully informed me that some of the stuff was usable, but most of it was simply landfill. They volunteered to take the junk to the dump for free. I offered them a tip. They found this awkward and informed me that they didn’t accept gratuities.

They were just lugging Kelly’s desk out when I stopped them. I’d forgotten to check the drawer. I opened it and discovered his personal journal.

It had a black leather cover, soft and pliant. It felt oddly warm.

I riffled through the pages. They were scabbed over with a minute handwriting as tight as Breton lace. The journal seemed to be a living thing, like a heart beating in my hand.

Chapter 2

I woke up at 4 A.M. My grandmother was sitting on the edge of my bed, Frank Kelly’s journal in her hand. She had it open, somewhere near the end. She ran her tongue across the page, smacked her lips, ruminating on the resonant bouquet of the page as though it  were a finely aged wine poured from a dusty, cobwebbed bottle.

“Damn it,” I said.

I rolled my head back on the pillow, glared at the ceiling.

“Your dilo friend,” she announced. “He is in hell.”

“I am in hell,” I told the ceiling.

“Maximo, why you say such bad things?”

“I am in hell,” I said, propping myself up on my elbows, “because you’re here.”

“You hurt my feelings,” she said, smiling brightly.

I reached across my bedside table for the half-smoked cheroot in the ashtray.

I lit it, blew a gust of white smoke across the bed. I watched as the tobacco cloud passed through Baba—it drifted into her indigo skirt, her scarlet blouse, and it fogged through the gold necklaces that hung across her chest in a grill thick enough to stop bullets. A conspiratorial grin torqued her face. And when she looked at me like that, the miles of the long road etched in the lines around her eyes, I knew that I would follow her wherever the caravan led.

“Why are you here this time?” I asked, casually because I don’t like her thinking she’s overly welcome.

You have to be careful with Gypsies, even the dead ones. Actually, especially the dead ones. Make them feel too much at home, and pretty soon they’re wearing all your cologne—at once—and eating your pork rinds and licking the pages of your dead friend’s personal journal.

“Put that book down,” I told her. “Frank Kelly is dead. Suicide. You’ll probably catch some nasty mahrime off of it.”

“I fixed it for you,” she said, closing the journal. “I cleansed it. No more mahrime. But, I must talk to you about this book.”

“Read it, did you?” I cocked my head to side and affected a pert, rather Anthony Newley interrogative expression.

Baba Lumenesta couldn’t read. Not words on a page, at any rate.

“This book is alive.” She turned toward me, leaning across the bed-covers to bring her shrewd, wizened face close to mine.

I shuddered. I had had the same sense about the book. But I had tried to ignore it.

Baba rose from the bed, placed the book on the table next to the window. The full moon was high in the sky now, swollen and milky. Its light poured through the mullioned glass, casting a grid shadow over the journal, like bars of a prison.

“Max, you’re gonna need to listen to me,” she rasped. “You could be in danger. This book is not average.”

“It’s not a book,” I told her. “It’s a personal journal. They’re all the rage now. People codifying the steady drip of their every inane thought. It helps you organize your self-obsession.”

“The men who wrote in this book are being held captive,” Baba said.

“That’s Frank’s book, Baba,” I told her. “One man. One man wrote the book.”

She snatched the book up off the table, tossed it onto my lap. It fell open to the page she’d been slavering. It was still damp.

“Look,” she said. “The hand is different.”

I switched on the bedside lamp, inspected the handwriting. It was elegant, flowing. The letters  were beautifully formed, the spacing was even and the pen had moved across the page gracefully.

Baba told me, “Compare to the other hand.”

I flipped to the beginning. Frank Kelly’s crabbed, tortured scratching blackened the pages.

“The other writing,” I said to Baba. “Maybe it is a woman’s?”

“No,” she shouted.

“Then who?”

“It is not a woman. But!” She stabbed one gnarled digit into the air, her coin bracelets shook like a tambourine. “Nor is it a man.”

Oh God, I thought, here we go. Showtime. Pull out the tarot cards. Put the cap on the monkey. And pass the tin cup.

“Fine. It’s not a woman,” I said. “Not a man. I can name a dozen nightclubs full of people who match that description.”

“It’s no joke, Max!”

She swiped the journal out of my hands and once again set it carefully in the pool of pearly moonlight, the shadows now forming a cross on its cover.

“It is the writing of a dead man,” she said. “But not Frank Kelly. Another.”

“Dead men telling tales?” I chilled at the thought, in spite of my smart-assery.

“He drove your friend mad,” she admonished me. “This dead man with the beautiful hand sent Frank Kelly to the bridge. And now, he comes for you.”

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